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The idea of self-inserts and the question of what their problem even is...


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#1 Mercurius

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Posted 29 June 2016 - 02:50 PM

So, I happen to watch anime that tends to have a very high ratio of female characters to male. Yes, these have a tendency to be harem anime adapted from light novels.

 

Now before you stop reading I should note that it's not that I even like harem anime. I don't really watch them for the kinds of reasons they get marketed. Chances are the only reason I will really watch it is because of the protagonist or for the setting of the show- both of which are actually the most criticized factors in these works. Why?

 

The reasons given for the most part for the former is that they are overpowered, have no personality, lack sexual maturity, and most importantly, that they are self-inserts which are simultaneously designed for the purpose of the intended audience projecting themselves onto the protagonist.

 

To make it short*, essentially this is what those criticisms are trying to say in detail from everything that I could infer:

  1. Overpowered = "The conflict isn't dangerous enough for me to care and I cannot get excited over someone that is capable of success without what I consider sufficient effort spent"
  2. Have no personality = "The character lacking in flaws makes me incapable of recognizing them as a person"
  3. Lack sexual maturity = "The only people who could relate to actually being that timid when in sexual situations are the kinds of losers that can't get girls"
  4. Self-insert = "The business model tells me enough that it doesn't matter what the character is, they are a self-insert, and they are meant for the audience to project onto them."

I only learned of the last one very recently and it's actually the one that bothers me the most, because it means that no matter what, because of the marketing involved in these kinds of works, all protagonists must be seen as the author's direct representative. Why does that bother me? Well mostly, because I don't actually like the authors of these works, chances are, I don't like the author of any work. Because everything they wrote in their work is what they wanted out of it, or was included for the purpose of appealing to the intended reader.

 

So, what even is a self-insert, anyway? Well, if your character doesn't look like you, doesn't act like you, doesn't live like you, doesn't think like you, and was intended to imitate the marketing trends, what is left to make them like you is only what you want. Ultimately what this ends up meaning is that when people complain about a self-insert, what they are essentially saying is: "Fuck you for writing about who you want." Parallel to this is: "Fuck you for giving this protagonist a good time."

 

Now here's the thing, the really important part, if the audience is convinced the protagonist isn't who the author wants, then chances are, they will stop using this criticism. There is a somewhat paradoxical nature to this idea of a self-insert protagonist meant for the intended audience to project themselves onto- the audience sucks at projecting onto self-inserts, particularly when they are much more competent than the audience, and because they are so used to trying to see themselves in a protagonist, they flip out at how the story isn't tailored to their requirements for empathy. However, as I've said, if they're convinced the protagonist isn't who the author wants, it doesn't matter if they actually are a self-insert or not, people won't see the character as one.

 

To demonstrate which is considered acceptable and which is subject to derision, I will be contrasting Natsuki Subaru and Bell Cranel.

 

Natsuki Subaru is:

  • Insolent (refers to royal candidates on the level of pets, holds contempt for his so-called special one for not being a convenience, declares that he lewdly fantasizes over the two maids of his host's home to their faces, assumes he's hot shit in spite of lack of evidence)
  • Ignorant (goes about acting like he's free to do whatever he wants, accuses knights of being nothing but born into a comfortable high-status job, feels disbelief at broken trust or lack of understanding even when there isn't much to suggest he would have earned it)
  • Righteously minded (asks for little in return for his efforts, aims to save people because he feels that's how things should be, feels entitled to things going his way)
  • Impotent (his only real strength is his ability to gather information with the aversion of life-threatening risk, for the most part he needs someone else to do the actual job for him because none of the skills he had from his former world are really of relevance)

We must keep in mind what setting Subaru is meant to be in, he is an everyday shut-in civilian protagonist transported into a fantasy world in which you can more or less assume everyone else of relevance is more respectable than he is, who nevertheless goes around shamelessly geeking it out and acting as though he is deserving of fair treatment and recognition from most people he meets. He still earns the favor of a half-elf royal candidate and one of the twin maids he got to know through work because they have an obligation to believe in him as a result of his efforts to help.

 

Bell Cranel is:

  • Humble (goes to return a grimoire he unintentionally used to apologize even though doing so should undoubtedly put him into severe debt, is aware of his shortcomings and tries to avoid inconveniencing others but will comply when he comes to an understanding, will hold out for his friends and goddess to sacrificial extents if needed)
  • Innocent (lacks sinful feelings and resentment, aims to help and understand the victimized in need, has the dream of becoming awesome for its own sake, behaves in a very childlike manner and wears his heart on the sleeve)
  • Ambitious (is incredibly enthusiastic over new gains, feels guilty over having hopes without effort put into it, wants to be sufficiently competent to be worthy as an equal of the one he admires)
  • Talented (his unrelenting will to become stronger causes his physical capabilities to improve more quickly than everyone else)

Unlike the former, Bell is a native to his world and more or less already knows how things work where he lives. You see him from near the beginning of his journey where he is reasonably capable of fending for himself, but is saved from an accident nearly getting him killed. He was rejected from most communities that he tried to request taking him in because his appearance suggested he was weak, but in everyday life he was largely unremarkable and going into the dungeon to hunt monsters is essentially his job as do many others. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to attract attention from unpleasant individuals as the story progresses and he believes he is still far from reaching his goal of being strong enough to be recognized by his savior.

 

Subaru is the one that is accepted and Bell is the one subject to derision. This is because, more than anything, the problem is in conflict of interest.

 

Let's review the common factors for criticism, being overpowered, having no personality, lacking sexual maturity, and being a self-insert.

 

Subaru is consistently incompetent, is riddled with flaws(although he is still considered a good guy), and doesn't mind implying predatory behavior on his behalf.

 

Bell keeps becoming stronger at an extraordinary pace, is too nice to be even comprehensible, and tends to flee from sexually aggressive or unintended intimate contact.

 

Most people do not want to be Bell, covet Bell, respect Bell, or want Bell to be happy. Humans have great difficulty seeing themselves in Bell, and thus criticize him so much further, demanding answers for why any girl would favor him, why he gets to hold power, and ultimately in being unable to even really think about anything about the character himself, go on to use this as an excuse to lay on personal attacks toward the creator and the readers it was allegedly meant for. It is quite apparent that their frustration is directed particularly towards someone who has it too good, it is considered a significantly notable improvement for a character to have no particularly appealing quality, get glorified anyway, but end up without being able to savor the fruits of his effort.

 

Contrary to him is Subaru, who lacks a background besides having come from the world we are familiar with, and was designed to essentially parallel the feelings of coming to a fantasy world as a geek, hype for superpowers and being special included, and the simple fact that he was let down on this hype proved to be an incredibly striking feature to who are the fans today.

 

With the ease people have for empathy regarding him, and most of the criticism I have seen of his character being that he's kind of dumb and has a rather simplistic motive behind all his effort, while it is disliked for its lack of grandeur, it is not considered something difficult to relate with. He is far more of an acceptable protagonist than Bell is. And there was one last thing that stood out of what I had observed of the positives about this show, in the latest episode, it is clarified that Subaru is not as heroic as many had seem him as up to now, to which it was said that this is a message from the author that the audience is not supposed to agree with the main character.**

 

Together with the claim in the air about how the author of Re:Zero (the work Subaru appears in) hates the latest trends in light novels (basically young adult fiction for Japan) and made his book to go against the norm, this effectively convinces everyone that's heard of it that Subaru is not a self-insert, destroying the barrier of preconception from keeping people at bay, meaning the business model assumption is rendered null. However, ultimately, the only thing this has really told me is that Subaru is not what the author wants, not in isolation, anyway. For all I know, he actually still thinks like the author. I would not consider it particularly unlikely that the author is writing Subaru from experience or repressed desire and the motive of making themselves seem more important than they really are by emphasizing how much suffering the protagonist goes through. Most importantly, the audience that likes Re:Zero wants Subaru to be happy, at least, eventually.

 

----

 

So wait, didn't I just lay out fairly detailed reasoning and explanation just now? Shouldn't I already know what the problem is?

 

Well the problem is, I'm the person who vastly prefers Bell Cranel, to the point of which he is the primary purpose behind me watching the show he stars in, I don't even favor any of the female characters but a very minor one that has virtually no interaction with him. I covet, respect, and want him to be happy, because he is one of my favorite characters. (I don't want to be him, but that's part of why I'm not the intended audience.) I am almost certain he does not look, act, live, or think like the author, making him have no greater connection to the author than anything else in the work, which allows me to adore him in isolation. If he is what the author wants, so what? I have problems with human desires when I find them disgusting, not personal desire in itself.

 

However, there is a cross-cultural understanding of just how you should be telling a story and what the story should be about to be worthy of being considered good. A measure of quality that I do not follow. Because to me, all that really is, is a different way of pandering to the audience.

 

What exactly is the reason that form of creating something for the audience's consumption is superior to the other? We can't say it's popularity because that has been often proven wrong, much to the dismay of those who do follow the measure of quality that they believe should be used, practically as though they were religious zealots.

 

If one is to look at gold and steel, they are looked at as different materials that are better at doing different things, and the value of the former is more from its rarity than anything. This kind of pros and cons view of what a written work is aiming to be is largely absent from discussion. It is simply known that one means of appealing is better than the other.

 

I believe that the way self-inserts are treated, and the personal attacks on authors for when they are employed, show better than anything else the greed and entitlement that comes with expectations for literature. But all I can do when I cannot innately understand the superiority that warrants such emotions behind it is ask for the reasoning of others.

 

*I know it makes me look dumb in hindsight but I meant it, I could have gone on for way longer

**This is somewhat of a strange concept for me. Considering that a fictional work does not directly put you under social pressure, whether you agree or not with the main character shouldn't hold relevance, it's just a difference. I adore Shiota Nagisa, but even if the work tries to suggest that Nagisa's aversion to femininity due to being male is proper, that doesn't mean that I agree with him in that he should adhere to male gender roles because he is male and my opinion of him isn't as great as it could be as a result, even if I do respect his feelings on the matter. Plus, this is another case where it's apparent I can take how the author is writing things as how the author thinks of the world, even if Nagisa is incredibly unlikely to be a self-insert.


I believe in judgment of humans through their judgment of fiction, for nothing else tells better of their disposition freed from apprehension.


#2 Blue Leafeon

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Posted 02 July 2016 - 06:40 PM

I feel like you've gotten a couple of terms mixed up.

 

A self-insert is specifically the author inserting themselves into the work. This character almost always holds the author's viewpoints in every aspect of life and may or may not be living the author's dream life.

 

An Audience Surrogate is a character designed for the audience to pretend they are, and sounds more like what you're trying to describe.

 

now I'm just gonna take this out of context to make my post's length more impressive:

So, what even is a self-insert, anyway? Well, if your character doesn't look like you, doesn't act like you, doesn't live like you, doesn't think like you, and was intended to imitate the marketing trends, what is left to make them like you is only what you want.

If your character doesn't look, act, live, or think like you then it's not a self-insert.

 

But just because the character does not NOT act, think, etc. like you does not mean it's an audience surrogate, either. My characters are 100% their own person with their own ways of thinking, their own morals, their own likes and dislikes... In general, they do tend to share at least some of my views, but that does not mean I'm forcing my own ideas into them. My characters develop on their own and I really have no say in anything.


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#3 Mercurius

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Posted 03 July 2016 - 10:20 PM

I'm already aware of what the terminology should be actually, but if we are to look at it from the view of the type of person that will criticize works for social reasons (in other words, they probably wouldn't bother doing it if it didn't get them any attention) the self-insert is something that should be performing the job of the audience surrogate through implication and doesn't really need to share appearance, behavior, thoughts or environment with the author. Why that is the case I have no real clue.

 

I suppose the new question would be for why you do not feel shame in having your characters share your views when elements of the author going into them is seen as so objectionable. I personally do it because it's impossible for me to actually care enough about a character I envision if they aren't designed for my tastes and thoughts to put them through significant development, and assume everybody (that doesn't already know from me telling them) would assume they aren't like the author as a result of the characters' despondence and villainous essence. (which, incidentally, probably makes all of them more or less impossible for most people to relate to.)

 

I mean, if I can't write about what I know, feel, and recognize, then all I have left is to copy other people without understanding what even makes them who they are.


I believe in judgment of humans through their judgment of fiction, for nothing else tells better of their disposition freed from apprehension.


#4 Blue Leafeon

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Posted 04 July 2016 - 12:38 AM

I'm already aware of what the terminology should be actually, but if we are to look at it from the view of the type of person that will criticize works for social reasons (in other words, they probably wouldn't bother doing it if it didn't get them any attention) the self-insert is something that should be performing the job of the audience surrogate through implication and doesn't really need to share appearance, behavior, thoughts or environment with the author. Why that is the case I have no real clue.

Unfortunately, in my skimming, I did not see anywhere where you mentioned that you knew the difference. It actually took me about five minutes or so to understand precisely what you were talking about, and the entirety of that five minutes was me going "...Huh? That's not a self-insert..." Although, I will be honest: I find your rants about things a tad difficult to read, for whatever reason, and sometimes have trouble discerning the reason for your post.

 

 


I suppose the new question would be for why you do not feel shame in having your characters share your views when elements of the author going into them is seen as so objectionable. I personally do it because it's impossible for me to actually care enough about a character I envision if they aren't designed for my tastes and thoughts to put them through significant development, and assume everybody (that doesn't already know from me telling them) would assume they aren't like the author as a result of the characters' despondence and villainous essence. (which, incidentally, probably makes all of them more or less impossible for most people to relate to.)

 

I mean, if I can't write about what I know, feel, and recognize, then all I have left is to copy other people without understanding what even makes them who they are.

Agreed. Even as an author, you need to have characters you can RELATE to. Otherwise, even you'll lose interest.

I have one character that, for whatever reason, I simply cannot relate to. He might share a few of my views but I just have never been able to make myself care about him enough. He's boring, I guess, or at least to me. I seem drawn to characters with not-so-perfect pasts, and this particular character is a kid with a good, loving family. Also a pampered prince. So while the story itself throws conflicts at him, I seem unable to work with him, for whatever reason. I just can't connect. Because of that...it's the only fully developed setting and story that I am unable to fully make out into a novel. I lose interest in writing it all too easily. :(


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#5 Mercurius

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Posted 04 July 2016 - 02:35 AM

 

Although, I will be honest: I find your rants about things a tad difficult to read, for whatever reason, and sometimes have trouble discerning the reason for your post.
I'm not certain you actually do realize what the reason for the post is, but in any case, most of that text is really just there to bring the contextual premise.
 
The reason I say this is because you brought this point up:

 

Agreed. Even as an author, you need to have characters you can RELATE to. Otherwise, even you'll lose interest.
In my case, it's especially when I'm an author that I need to create characters I can relate to. The problem isn't that I can't be interested in those I don't relate (much) to, so much as being unable to actually conceive much about them on my own to actually write what they would do and feel. The vast majority of the characters that I actually observe in fiction aren't characters I relate to in any seriously meaningful way in the first place.
 
The question of the first post is ultimately why, through the logic of good writing, characters such as Bell Cranel cannot be appreciated, and why that logic which reaches such a conclusion is considered the right way fiction should be done to begin with. In contrast, Natsuki Subaru, who works a lot better as an audience surrogate, isn't particularly criticized all that much because he is the product of appealing to the reader that follows this logic.
 
(As for why it's a rant to begin with, that would be because I tend to hate what the logic of good writing actually causes readers to demand out of stories. Using a simple example, there was someone who wished, out of frustration, something devastatingly horrible would happen to one of my favorite characters just so they could see them "grow" from the experience. In turn, I wished something devastatingly horrible would happen to the critic themselves, and amused myself at the thought of them being unable to appreciate the opportunity to "grow as a person.")

 

I seem drawn to characters with not-so-perfect pasts, and this particular character is a kid with a good, loving family. Also a pampered prince. 
There's no one out there that really has a perfect past. You can easily make a pampered prince realize he's ultimately never been treated like a real person because of his status or something of the like, that even if his family had spoiled him, he never was really able to communicate properly with them because he didn't want them to think he too would have an ugly side, or whatever.
 
One character I envisioned, from his perspective, essentially was having a perfect life. He took people's word for when they claimed nothing was wrong, was free to learn and do whatever he wanted, always had his tastes catered to, was stronger, faster, and healthier than everything else he knew of and did not let this bring him to solitude, only ever had people he found himself comfortable with around him, and was essentially told everything would go on smoothly for all of his life from the beginning to the end. He even assumed everybody else like him had no risk of decay from age. As a result he strove to be the best he could ever be for everyone else in thankfulness toward the world, his love and trust, pure and overflowing.
 
Except he eventually learns that all of that was a set-up by his lord the king and with the curse of mind-reading he learns just how much almost everyone he knew really hated him, because all of them were coerced into behaving nicely toward him, taken away from their families and homes to serve this illusion, removed from the premises whenever they were struck with disease or started losing their youth, and were fucking fed up with how nothing ever went wrong for him, to the point of which they hated no one else more than he (even though it isn't even his fault) and wished him nothing but the worst of fates. Even the girl who had come closest by his side turned out to be an assassin sent to get rid of him and his lord, and as far as he knew, with his lord nowhere to be found, he had no one but the sword to support him in his time of need. (The continuation is about as unpleasant as it should be.)

I believe in judgment of humans through their judgment of fiction, for nothing else tells better of their disposition freed from apprehension.


#6 Blue Leafeon

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Posted 04 July 2016 - 11:12 AM

The question of the first post is ultimately why, through the logic of good writing, characters such as Bell Cranel cannot be appreciated, and why that logic which reaches such a conclusion is considered the right way fiction should be done to begin with. In contrast, Natsuki Subaru, who works a lot better as an audience surrogate, isn't particularly criticized all that much because he is the product of appealing to the reader that follows this logic.
 
I don't know. People in general seem to have awfully hypocritical stands on any two things. I can't relate much to characters themselves, especially of the anime type, and the only example I can really think of is when IGN said that OR/AS had "too much water." As much as the Pokemon community took this and made fun of it, I know plenty of people who agreed that this was a legitimate complaint.

Yet these same people will play LoZ: Wind Waker and not have any problem whatsoever. My friend actually did the math, and the amount of land on the overworld map in Wind Waker amounts to less than 1% of the map itself, meaning that it is 99% water. Yet somehow people don't complain about too much water there. Nobody but myself, that is--but I'm a person who likes exploring in video games. And in Wind Waker, at least the original gamecube version, there was nothing really to explore. Most of the islands in the game, if they didn't hold dungeons or have some significance like the towns, were just...there. There wasn't much to them.
 

There's no one out there that really has a perfect past. You can easily make a pampered prince realize he's ultimately never been treated like a real person because of his status or something of the like, that even if his family had spoiled him, he never was really able to communicate properly with them because he didn't want them to think he too would have an ugly side, or whatever.

I guess in a sense, people around him likely haven't been acting "real." Even his parents will keep things to themselves if they think it will upset him in any way. They wait until he's gone to do their arguing. However, this does come back to bite him. The war is extremely traumatizing to him, and he turns out to be incredibly naive and trusting of everyone.


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